Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne: Following as Performance and Book
Sophie Calle makes portraits of herself and strangers through investigative methods including surveillance, interviews, photography, and text. In Suite Vénitienne (Siglio Press, 2015) Calle follows an acquaintance, Henri B., through Venice for two weeks. Calle’s route includes systematic trailing and sporadic tracking of strangers with whom Henri B. might have some connection. Suite Vénitienne, reissued from Siglio in the form of a die-cut, hardcover artist’s book, is handsomely bound and readable. The book contains four color and 56 black-and-white illustrations and photographs accompanying plain and descriptive narratives of Henri B.’s, and therefore Calle’s, maneuverings.
The book becomes about the act of following. Through the specificity of Calle’s intention — to trail this vague acquaintance — the reader/viewer finds herself following Calle following Henri B. The text takes the form of a paced trail-making. Henri B.’s decisions set the pace. Calle’s decisions — the ways in which she describes her subject’s actions, the photographs she chooses to present — make the trail and narrate a specific version of his trip. As in much of Calle’s work, a pointed problem is worked towards or through by Calle herself and the labor overlays the life of the artist. What is uncovered is relatable and applicable. Calle is versed in getting at the universal through the acutely personal, via factual and plain observations. On the first page, she sets a tone and moves along the path accordingly:
For months I followed strangers on the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. I decided to follow him.
Calle is not interested in Henri B. She is interested in the investigation. Henri could be anyone. Calle becomes the subject. I became interested in her decisions and modes of framing Henri B. Immersed in her detailed and straightforward descriptions of her subject, I couldn’t help but wonder about the intricacies of her positioning. Where was she in relation to Henri B.? Calle tells us that she is in disguise — wearing a blonde wig. She carries a camera. In the charged moments when Calle reveals her proximity to Henri B., the act of following becomes a performance and the quality of the relationship between follower and followed reveals itself to be one of a high tension:
8:45pm Their legs appear on the top steps. I crouch into my hiding place. They go, turning to their left. I wait a few seconds. At the very moment I leave the alley to follow them, they turn around. She was the first to turn back. She scares me more than he does.
If the site of following is the site of performance, then Suite Vénitienne might be a document of the act, which happened under clandestine circumstances in Venice in 1980. However, this considerately designed book is a work in itself. It is a re-enlivened iteration of Calle’s two week carrying-out. Here, the performance and narrative notations are inseparable. Time stamps, detailed maps, and street photographs help situate the portrait. Calle is practical but fluid in her narrative and physical plays:
I always see the same faces, never his. I’ve come to find some consolation in knowing he’s not where I am looking for him. I know where Henri B. is not.
For a few moments, I take a different tack and absentmindedly follow a flower delivery boy — as if he might lead me to him.
The distance between what one desires (follows) and the object of one’s desire is vast and often hastily filled with projections. Once the distance is closed (Henri discovers that Calle has been following him) the elusiveness dissipates. Calle is the most interesting thing about Henri. B.:
I think about him and that phrase by Proust, ‘To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!’
I must not forget that I don’t have any amorous feelings toward Henri B. The impatience with which I await his arrival, the fear of that encounter, these symptoms aren’t really a part of me.
Those symptoms are perhaps a part of the loaded act of tracking. Calle becomes quite immersed in the object of her gaze. But, there are edges around the project. Her final entry reads: “10:10am I stop following Henri B.”
The compact intimacy of Siglio’s re-edition of Suite Vénitienne is an apt form for Calle’s discreet findings. The book form creates space for the reader to make a third trail against and through those of Henri B. and Calle.
Calle, Sophie. Suite Vénitienne. (Los Angeles: Siglio, 2015). ISBN-13:978-1-938221-09-5, 96 pages, $34.95